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Original Title: El muerte y ser feliz (Spain-Argentina)
Director: Javier Rebollo
Writers: Lola Mayo, Javier Rebollo and Saltador Roselli
Starring: José Sacristán, Roxana Blanco and Jorge Jellinek
Runtime: 94 minutes
NYFF 2012 Programme: Main Slate

We’ve seen a lot of road films – and films that tell the story of a hero – but Spanish director Javier Rebollo takes his viewers on a whirlwind of a trip — literally — with his new film: The Dead Man and Being Happy. It traveled over 5,000 kilometers through Argentinian and Bolivian landscapes, shot in a span of only two months. The film had its North American premiere at NYFF on October 11.

Why was it filmed at such a fast speed on the road? For Rebollo, the film was an incarnation of his own need to escape: He was suffering from a failed relationship during the production of the film. The script and the character design were also determined during the long trip on non-highway roads in South America. Read what Rebollo said in a Q&A found HERE.

The film is a curious combination of directorial vision and ad lib choices. Santos (José Sacristán), a retired hitman suffering from terminal tumors in his body, embarks on a road trip across Argentina with a bottle of morphine. He is joined by Érika (Roxana Blanco), a 40-year-old woman who has just backed out of a marriage. The two become closer and closer, each finding bits of oneself in one another, in a shared need to forget and move on. Santos tries to escape the memories of people he was assigned to kill (he does not kill a single person in the film), and Érika tries to escape memories of her father, who killed dogs (Be careful of these gruesome moments in the film). The film is narrated by a slightly agitated female voice, which sometimes gives a description of the characters’ actions.

José Sacristán and Roxana Blanco in "The Dead Man and Being Happy" - NYFF 2012

Before we get into what the director did right, here are some criticisms: The film was kitsch. It was shot with simple lighting that sometimes overexposed the picture, and it chose cinematography with common elements of the rough-and-tumble road films: restaurants, rolling hills, motels and hitchhikers. For much of the film, the characters are silent and feel distant from the viewers. The only salvage in those situations is the narrator, who goes so far as to announce their thoughts and possible outcomes of their actions.

That being said, what the film did right was connected to its kitsch style. It takes viewers off the main road from the get-go and keeps the promise to not come back. The countryside is interesting to look at, and the local people have great personalities. In one scene, Santos threatens a young man with his gun, but is surprised when the young man confronts him with a tap-dance number. The scenery noticeably changes throughout the film, reminding the viewers of the characters’ transition toward their respective ends.

José Sacristán in "The Dead Man and Being Happy" - NYFF 2012

The soundtrack is intentionally erratic. The ambient audio would suddenly disappear, and the voices may not correspond to the video. Through this technique, the viewers are gradually trained to accept the narrator as the only sane voice in the film, and foster an arbitrary relationship with her. But, she lies to the viewers’ faces, similar to how Santos hides his past with lies. The final scene of the film takes the main character into the mountains. Santos’s power animal, the white horse, appears in a dream-like scene, helping the viewers snap out of the “real” narrative that they have built for themselves. The director says the film is the construction of myths for its characters: Since the characters are constantly dealing with troubles in their memories, it becomes clear that nothing could be taken for granted.

At the end of the day, past the long scenes on the road, past the cringe-worthy moments, The Dead Man and Being Happy was enjoyable for its ability to present a realistic Argentina. Keep your eye out for a brief glimpse of La Cumbrecita; a German community with former Nazis spending the rest of their lives in Argentina.

Photo credits: New York Film Festival